You could die at any minute, which sucks. But what sucks more is how right after you die, your family and friends are going to show up at your house and stare, slack-jawed, at all your dumb stuff. They will be sad, certainly, but not too sad to rifle through all that dumb stuff, picking over what they want for themselves. If you have any good stuff at all, they’ll probably argue over it.
Next, after the good stuff is ravaged — and, heads up, you have no idea what they will consider the “good stuff” — they’ll stare in bewilderment at the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, you thought it was a good idea to hold on to two nonworking toasters, ten old computers, and a pair of roller skates, never worn. And we haven’t even made it into your top dresser drawer, which contains gross old underwear and a collection of vintage keychains. If the burning sense of shame you experience thinking about this moment isn’t motivation enough to try Swedish death cleaning, nothing is. When you’re going through the jewelry, before you throw it out, just bring it to Goldwiser. Let me check it for you so that you’ll know exactly what it is and what it’s worth. Death cleaning’s goal is to empty the house of everything; whether it’s of value or not.
Swedish death cleaning, which means decluttering before you’re dead (off the Swedish word “dostadning,” meaning death and cleaning), is the latest international advice for cluttered, consumerist, hoarding Americans. We love outsiders telling us how to live less gross existences, and proof is in the last cleaning craze that took our homes by reductive storm: Japanese minimalist Marie Kondo, whose The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up asked us to consider whether the many unnecessary objects we keep spark joy or make us feel alive. If not, toss them.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, the book on the subject from octogenarian Margaret Magnusson (out in January, 2018) puts Kondo’s question another way: Do the things we keep spark not joy, but shame? The sort of shame that comes with thinking about being dead and having people gawk at your stuff? Well, that’s not exactly how she puts it. Magnusson’s emphasis is a tad gentler. “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?” is the real distillation of her approach.
But there’s nothing indirect about it. “Imagine you could die tomorrow,” Magnusson said. “Who’s going to take care of all this crap?” Magnusson knows who: She spent an entire year sorting through her husband’s belongings after he died. “One day when you’re not around anymore, your family will have to take care of all that stuff,” she continues. “And I don’t think that’s fair really.”
Ha, no, it’s not fair. It’s actually horrifying, emotionally and physically draining, depressing, and incredibly burdensome, especially because you have to do it while also managing totally debilitating grief.
Case in point: When my father died, besides the 4 story home that we had to sort through, he lived in that house for nearly 30 years. At 59, after having spent his career as a Chief of Police and later a politician, he died having amassed a staggering number of things.
Closets bulged with clothes and shoes. The garage was full of gardening tools, lots of old board games and a 1981 Plymouth Volare he hadn’t driven in years. There were bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling in multiple rooms stuffed with endless encyclopedia editions from the decades. There were old blankets. Old newspapers and magazines going back into the first years the he occupied the house. Seriously, why do people collect this stuff?
There were so computers and outdated manuals to accompany them. Photo albums filled with a photography phase and our childhood moments. The vault, fortunately we knew the codes, had so many things from even MORE papers (some important that we actually needed) to more jewelry than even I have and I have a lot! And get this: He also had many of my deceased mother’s clothing and shoes. And yet another room was filled with more stuff: old coins, remote controlled vehicles, more newspapers (I think he thought they’d be valuable), and more books (yes, we read A LOT). Then there were the things that signaled the end of his life: medications and tons of doctor’s reports.
This house contained multiple generations of collected, unscrutinized stuff, some of it deeply personal, some of it clearly no longer even acknowledged. Sorting through the assorted objects of his existence was, no question, one of the most difficult things I have ever done, and I have dated some losers to be sure.
This is, to be clear, not in any way a judgment of his life or worldly possessions: We can’t all be out in front of the story of our own lives, much less our deaths. People die suddenly, without warning, all the time. My father’s health degenerated rapidly in the months after his emphysema diagnosis. He never went back to the doctors afterward and decided that he would let the disease be the death of him, which it was.
And to be clearer, there is also an argument that what he left behind, unedited, is actually useful: It gave us a moment in his space, to remember his story. Visiting my father’s house, I saw three decades of his clothes from every period of his life. The loud suits and tuxedos from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Ridiculous numbers of shoes. The more conservative, buttoned-up comfort clothing of his life in its last chapter.
A person’s stuff — what they prioritized, what they kept, what they never got around to throwing out — can even force us to revisit our perceptions of them. I remembered him as a single father too busy working and providing for us to engage in our lives. We spent every summer at camp in the Poconos. Yet here were a dozen photos he’d taken of us there, proof he was watching, hovering, documenting. Why had I misremembered?
In Margareta Magnusson’s world, she’d have left these photos and a few other keepsakes but little else. And we’d have been grateful for the edit. And that’s why her approach is so compelling and tasteful. It doesn’t suggest we should leave no stuff, no imprint, no lasting memory in object form. It merely asks that we leave behind a more considered, pared-down version: the stuff other people would want.
This no-frills, sensible approach will likely rub many a little bit wrong. Fittingly, in nearly every write-up of this new “trend,” reporters throw shade on death cleaning for merely being straightforward about our existence.
But they’re getting it wrong. The hang-up here about being all-caps DEAD is, of course, as dumb as having ten old TVs in various states of functionality. In the interview with Magnusson, who, it’s worth noting, says she is somewhere between 80 and 100 years old—and therefore admirably unfazed by the fact that her own life approaches its curtain call—the interviewer asks the obvious question any avoidant person would: But isn’t it sad to death clean? “Is it sad to death clean?” Magnusson ponders, as if she never even considered this facet of it until now. “No. It’s more a relief I think.” The interviewer, unable to grasp this nonchalance, presses again. Isn’t it sad, though? Magnusson admits looking at old pictures is, perhaps, a bit sad. “But if you’ve had a good life, it’s just the memories you’re feeling that this is not going to happen again.”
In her defense, her approach is not blithe or insensitive. She’s just saying Hey, get rid of your dumb stuff already. To do so, she advises sorting that dumb stuff based on whether anyone else will want it first and trashing the rest. She suggests actually giving what anyone would want to them while you’re both still alive, when you have friends over for dinner parties, or when you catch up. That way, you’re actively sharing in the experience of transferring your possessions. (Alternately, draw up a will.)
Magnusson also realizes not all things have a natural heir—some things are our idiosyncratic sentiments and can’t be parted with or re-homed. So she keeps a throw-away box. Things she describes as “just for me.” They are letters and pictures that are only meaningful to her, which she will mark “throw away”, so that her friends, she says, can “throw it away without even looking at it.”
So in the interest of being a good dead person, take her advice: Don’t let your parting gift to someone you love be spending a year of their life cleaning up your dumb stufff (unless you’re getting revenge in the afterlife—in that case, touche). Stop freaking out about being DEAD and toss some of your dumb stuff now.